The wrong questions to ask a woman after a traumatic birth.

Sometimes over the past 14 years of running Birthtalk.org we’ve heard well-intentioned people –  even some birth workers – ask the wrong questions to a woman who has just shared details about her traumatic birth.

(And Melissa from Birthtalk.org had some of those questions asked of her, after her own traumatic birth.)

Questions like :

  • “Why didn’t you consider a homebirth?”
  • “Why didn’t you ask for a mobile epidural?”
  • “Why didn’t you just refuse consent?”
  • “Why didn’t you just opt for a caesarean in the beginning?”
  • “Why did you wait so long before having pain relief?”

But …

Anything that starts with “Why didn’t you…?” is NOT helpful in the initial healing stage.

Maybe it’s not helpful at any stage.

A woman needs to know that YOU know this :

Every single decision she made was to preserve the life of her child, or to survive the experience herself (sometimes to emotionally survive), and sometimes that can mean doing what she might not do in other circumstances… because when birthing in our culture and our maternal health system we are often alone, and vulnerable, and scared, and desperate to take this baby home while hearing terrible stories.

There is an incredible strength in mothers – who will do what it takes for their child’s sake.

And yes, sometimes they have been given incorrect or manipulative information.

Sometimes they have had access to inaccurate advice that skews their decision-making.

Sometimes they are faced with unsupportive partners, support people, family.

But they are ALWAYS. ALWAYS. making the best decisions they can with the information and resources they have.

So stop asking “Why didn’t you?”

And start showering her with the love and the affirmation she needs.

Give her the room to tell her story.

Listen.

Let her know that you know she has done the best she can with the information she has.

And that you can understand her decision-making in that situation.

And that you know that birth trauma is real…AND it is possible to heal.

we-need-to-take-care-with-every-message

 

PS. We’d also like to hear what questions you’ve been asked that felt harmful rather than helpful – feel free to share below – your sharing may offer support to other women who have experienced similar comments.

©Melissa Bruijn and Debby Gould, Birthtalk.org 2017.

Melissa and Debby are the authors of How to Heal a Bad Birth : making sense, making peace and moving on. This ground-breaking self-help book takes the reader on a ‘Choose your own adventure’ style of healing journey… because every woman’s path to healing will be different. The pages are filled with heartfelt quotes from women, facts and insights about birth trauma, and ideas for dealing with common emotions that arise such as sadness, guilt, feelings of failure, anger and partner issues. There are step-by-step tools for healing, and immense support and compassion contained within these pages. Say the authors : “For the past 14 years we’ve been working with women after a traumatic birth in our ‘Healing From Birth’ support sessions. Because we’ve see the impact birth can have, we are gentle with women’s hearts as they step forward and acknowledge that they are ready to take the journey to healing. And we are with you all the way.”

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16 comments

  1. I always found the saying ‘well at least you have a healthy baby’ completely disregards my value in the whole process. It was my body, my baby and my life that was being affected, and at the time I was the least important person in the room and afterwards that saying re-affirmed it. It made understanding what happened to me so much harder and affected how well others were prepared to accept that I had been traumatised by what happened.

    Another implication I got from talking to people was that if I hated the birth I must hate the baby. A good birth certainly makes it easier to fall in love with your baby, but the two are different. You can hate how you got your baby, but love them all the same.

    1. Absolutely true, Melanie – thank you so much for sharing. I felt exactly the same (it’s Melissa from Birthtalk here), and Deb and I have supported countless women who experience the same as well. That saying (about having a healthy baby) just shuts women down, and isolates them from support. And you are so right – you can hate your birth, but love your baby. Really appreciate your comment – thank you xx

  2. Same with pregnancy – you can have a really tough pregnancy, hate the way you feel when you are pregnant and still love your baby. People make the same sort of helpful comments – ‘you’re lucky to be pregnant’ ‘some people would love to be in your position’ ‘I loved being pregnant’ etc I don’t think people mean to be unkind, but unless it has happened to them or someone very close to them, they just don’t understand xx

    1. Emma that’s so true. Sometimes pregnancy can be SO rough – and you are right that expressing this does not reflect upon your love for your baby. We can totally understand that those comments are not at all helpful – and thank you for sharing XX

  3. I haven’t widely shared my birth story, so when I’m asked “how was the birth” all I can think to say is “the labour was short”. I’m always told how ‘lucky’ I was.
    The reality is for the 6 hours of labour following an induction my husband and I were repeatedly dismissed and ignored by hospital staff. My husband had to leave me alone when I was hysterical (because I thought my baby had died in utero) and bleeding to beg for help. By the time I finally had medical assistance I was crowning and my baby was born a few minutes later.
    My beautiful baby is healthy and amazing, but my husband and I have been diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety and depression. We are both on anti-depressants and have lost faith in medical practitioners.

    1. Oh wow – what a horrific experience for you both! We can completely understand that this experience was traumatic for both of you, has had a significant impact upon you, and we are so sorry that it happened to you! It makes sense that the only thing you feel able to share, about your birth, is that ‘it was short’ . It would be difficult to share just how intense and challenging it was, however we can also imagine, that you could feel unacknowledged and alone, especially when people think, that you were in lucky in any way. We have found that the length of the labour for a woman is less important (in terms of how she will feel afterwards) than how a woman (& her partner) feel during the labour and how they are treated during that time. Being dismissed, ignored and fearing that your baby had died during that period, as well as, being (and feeling) alone, would be horrific! We can imagine that you may have felt helpless, frightened and abandoned and that this is so challenging to deal with. And understandably that it could have a huge impact for both of you afterwards. Please know that you don’t ever need to feel like that again, (even if you do have more children), and that you can heal! We can understand that you have lost faith in health care professionals but please also know that, if with any future care, you don’t feel safe and supported, there is information and strategies you can use, to support you to feel confident about accessing appropriate care. If we can support you and your husband please let us know – we do offer Skype sessions to those who are not located near us. And we are grateful for your comment – you are very strong and sharing your experience may support another woman and partner.
      Thank you so much, again, for sharing xx.

  4. Saying ‘it could have been worse’, or ‘sounds like you had it easy compared to *insert horror story here*’ is awful for a mother to hear. We don’t want to think about how it could be worse – we’re trying to deal with what DID happen.

    1. That’s so true, Lou. I had people saying that to me before I’d even left the hospital after my traumatic birth, and telling me stories about someone else who really DID have it bad (in their eyes!). It didn’t help. Thanks so much for your comment xx

  5. Heather · · Reply

    The number one thing I found to be the most damaging, someone already mentioned, “at least the baby is healthy that’s all that matters.” Or “forget about it the baby is here now.” Those statements were incredibly hurtful in a time when I needed help the most. The hardest question I’ve ever been asked, “what can I do so it doesn’t happen to me?” The person was not trying to be intentionally hurtful. But it was very hard to hear. It felt like my experience was minimized and that I could’ve had some control and I chose not to. It again, like the first statement, perpetuates a cycle of guilt. Not to mention starts the “what if” game which is a trauma survivors worst enemy.

    1. Heather – thank you so much for your comment. We totally agree that those statements can be so incredibly hurtful. They completely dismiss the experience of the mother, and perpetuate the myth that the health baby ‘wipes the slate clean’. How hard it must have been to have someone ask you what they can do so it doesn’t happen to them. And you are so right – it takes you back into that cycle of guilt and ‘what ifs’ – a very difficult and lonely place to be. We really appreciate you sharing your experience, Heather – and we know it will resonate with many other women who have encountered similar comments, which can be a really important step in the healing journey – to know we are not alone. We wish you all the best on your own healing path xx

  6. Sabrina · · Reply

    I have found your blog on the day I needed it most I think, my baby is turning 1 year old today, in approximately 2 hours time, and for some reason I haven’t stopped crying and I’m dreading everyone arriving for his party. I read your post on why birthdays can be traumatic and I wanted to thank you for writing it and for writing all your posts and for giving this resource to the world. I tend to live in my head quite a bit, analysing how I feel, not giving much thought to the fact that I’m not alone in the way I feel; instead feeling quite isolated in my thoughts. To find out that what I’m experiencing in terms of anxiety for my son’s first birthday is not uncommon and in fact is quite normal has really helped me feel somewhat better. I had a traumatic birth experience, but never really stopped to consider what that could mean for me emotionally, spiritually, who has the time right? 36 hours of labour, severe pre-eclampsia, HELLP syndrome, emergency c-section, suspected bowel obstruction, 9 days in hospital, nil by mouth for 6 days, unable to lift my baby. My entire pregnancy I had planned for a home birth, my pregnancy was a perfect celebration of love and mystery, I couldn’t have asked for a more dreamy 9 months. For 6 weeks after giving birth I had to wear compression stockings to help my body deal with the extreme edema that split the skin on my legs and I had to have nightly clexane injections. “But at least you didn’t have to push a 10.5 lb baby out of your vagina. At least you have a happy healthy boy. At least you’re still alive.” And it’s true, I guess I am lucky that I didn’t give birth to him naturally…although I didn’t feel lucky. I felt robbed. And at least he is happy and healthy – very true, my girlfriend lost one of her twins the day before she delivered them at full term, I can’t imagine the depths of her despair and grief. But sometimes I resent even this statement, happy and healthy yes thank god, but at what cost to me – that is still being figured out. I couldn’t feel more guilty about expressing that particular sentiment let me tell you! And yes, at least I’m still alive. That’s the big one, HELLP syndrome kills, and it’s very difficult to diagnose, so it’s very lucky I wasn’t at home and I was surrounded by medical professionals who were wonderful and communicative and patient and kind. It’s hard not to feel that this statement is meant in the kindest of ways. But sometimes it came out as almost sarcastic in a way, as if to say ‘stop your bitching, at least you’re still here, lots of women actually die during childbirth you know! I guess almost dying because my liver was failing and my other organs were shutting down as a consequence isn’t quite as deserving of sympathy and understanding. The grief and shock of a traumatic birth is such a complex and private grief, unable to be really communicated to others, to find a place like this where other women have shared in what is such a personal experience is spiritually soothing, even though you wouldn’t wish this experience on your worst enemy. Right – now that I’ve unloaded on you (apologies but thank you for providing a space to do so) I guess it’s time to think about healing. Once again, thank you for this wonderful resource. Since typing this I have stopped crying.

    1. Hi Sabrina – thank you so much for your comment. And thank you also for sharing about your experience – we are so very glad you found us, especially at this time when your baby is turning 1 (we hope the day goes well for you today – we send you strength and support and love as you make your way through today). We are also glad you have found our blog helpful to you as you begin to work towards healing. You have been through so much, and you deserve to process and heal from your experience. We are here as you make your way through this – and we are sending you a huge hug. From Melissa and Deb xx

  7. MonkeyMel · · Reply

    Hi Sabrina
    I’m sorry to hear that your birth was such a traumatic time for you. Know that you are not alone in feeling the way your are and that nothing that you are feeling is wrong. The first anniversary is difficult and if you have time, take some time for yourself today to process what you are feeling. Healing after a traumatic birth is possible http://birthtalk.org/ is an Australian organisation that has lots of information on what you can do to help process and navigate your healing (I’m not affiliated with them but I’ve found their information really helpful).
    I agree that the words we hear following our traumatic births can be damaging. It’s like society has this view that if you don’t love your birth, you mustn’t love your baby. You can love your baby AND hate how you got them.
    Be kind to yourself, you did the best job you could with the information you had available at the time. Healing takes time and no one has any right to tell you how long it should take.

    1. MonkeyMel thank you so much for your lovely comment of support to Sabrina – we really appreciate your kindness. We also wanted to let you know that we are Birthtalk.org 🙂 This is our blog 🙂 So we are totally chuffed to see that you have offered us as a recommendation for support for Sabrina!! We are also so glad to know that you have found our information helpful – it means so much to us to know that. Thank you again for reaching out and supporting another mum – and best wishes in your own journey – from Melissa and Deb at Birthtalk.org 🙂

  8. Sabrina · · Reply

    Melissa and Deb and MonkeyMel – thank you so much. You words and your support came just in the nick of time as I must admit to a couple of total meltdowns yesterday, but got through it because of your words. The day was ok – my stress levels aside, it actually went off pretty well, no awkward questions, no misguided attempts at expertise, just family together enjoying a meal and celebrating the first year for our boy. Once I was able to relax into it (and ignore the fact that we are deep in a sleep regression at the moment haha) I enjoyed it. My little guy commences his second year on earth today, phenomenal. A thousand thanks. I daresay your blog is about to become my bible for healing. Love and best wishes.

    1. So good to hear things went ok, Sabrina 😊 and yes, you are now into his second year! Best wishes as you move forward – we are here as you travel this path and glad our words and monkey Mel’s helped ❤️

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